Focal Points Blog

WikiLeaks Western Sahara Cables Reveal Role of Ideology in State Dept.

Over the years, as part of my academic research, I have spent many hours at the National Archives poring over diplomatic cables of the kind recently released in Wikileaks. The only difference is that rather than being released after a 30+ year waiting period – when the principals involved are presumably dead or in retirement and the countries in question have very different governments in power – the Wikileaks are a lot more recent, more relevant and, in some cases, more embarrassing as a result.

However, those of us who have actually read such cables over the years find nothing in them particularly unusual or surprising. Indeed, the only people who would be surprised or shocked by what has been released in the recent dump of diplomatic cables are those who have a naïve view that the U.S. foreign policy is not about empire but about freedom, democracy, international law, and mutually-respectful relationships between sovereign nations. There is little indication that the foreign governments in question are particularly surprised at any of the content in these cables either.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume the interpretations of events by State Department personnel contained in these documents are accurate reflections of reality. While many career Foreign Service officers are sincere and dedicated people, the nature of their role forces them to see the world from inside the prism of a hegemonic power. They cannot expect to have a more enlightened view of developments within a Middle Eastern state than, for example, a representative of the British Foreign Office would have had a century earlier.

For my doctoral dissertation on what motivated U.S. military intervention in Latin America and the Middle East during the 1950s, I spent many hours reviewing cables sent to and from U.S. embassies in Guatemala and Iran in the months prior to the U.S.-backed coups in those countries. I read frantic messages sent by senior diplomats in the U.S. embassy and top officials in the State Department and the White House regarding what they feared to be imminent Communist takeovers of those countries. Neither of these fears was based on reality, of course, but it was widely believed to be true.

By contrast, there is absolutely nothing in the hundreds of cables I reviewed in the lead-up to the coups indicating that the desire to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossedegh was based primarily on his nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company or that the plans to overthrow Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was based upon his nationalization of some lands owned by the United Fruit Company. It was based on a sincere, if grossly exaggerated, fear that there was a real threat that these countries would become dominated by pro-Soviet Communists. This certainly does not rule out the likelihood that powerful corporate interests which had a stake in ousting these nationalist leaders helped create the climate that led to such paranoid speculation. However, as far as those who made the key decisions were concerned, it appears to have been based primarily on this fear of Communist takeovers.

There is a tendency among critics of U.S. foreign policy to assume a level of rationality in decision-making that has led to the emergence of many popular conspiracy theories. Yes, there have certainly been conspiracies. Yes, in the final analysis, powerful corporate interests do play an important role in U.S. foreign policy. Yet what is often overlooked is the role of ideology, of the way that those embedded in U.S. embassies are willing to take the prevailing line simply because that it what they are pre-disposed to believe and they didn’t have the opportunity or the willingness to figure things out otherwise. This is why, absent of corroborating evidence, I’m skeptical about leaked documents regarding large-scale Iranian support of Iraqi insurgents and other claims which appear to legitimate U.S. militarism.

Our man in Rabat

One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon of allowing ideology to interfere with honest reporting comes in a recently-released cable from the U.S. charge d’affairs in the U.S. embassy in Morocco, Robert P. Jackson.

In his lengthy analysis regarding the conflict over Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, he makes the preposterous assertion that the independence struggle is essentially an Algerian creation, ignoring decades of popular resistance and longstanding Sahrawi nationalism which pre-dated Algeria’s support for the nationalist Polisario Front. He bases this claim on the fact that because the Polisario has failed to claim Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco as part of the Western Sahara state, this somehow proves that the struggle is “less nationalist than geopolitical, linked to the much older dispute between Algeria and Morocco, and hardly boosts the case for an independent state.”

In reality, the reasons for this distinction between the two Sahrawi-populated regions is that the Polisario – unlike Morocco and its supporters – understands international law: The Sahrawi-populated Tefaya region is universally-recognized as part of Morocco whereas Sahrawi-populated Western Sahara is recognized as a non-self-governing territory under foreign belligerent occupation and therefore has the right to self-determination, including the option of independence. If Morocco would allow the Tefaya region to become part of an independent Western Sahara, there certainly would be no objections by the Polisario, but they simply understand that they have a much stronger case regarding Western Sahara itself. Instead, the U.S. charge implies that this willingness to recognize this important legal distinction somehow delegitimizes the nationalist struggle.

Jackson goes on to criticize the United Nations for recognizing the Polisario, along with Morocco, as the two principal parties in the conflict, insisting that the Algerians – who have no claim to Western Sahara – are the key to peace because of their support for the Polisario. Rather than pressure Morocco to abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision by the International Court of Justice to allow for an act of self-determination, he calls on UN special envoy Christopher Ross, a veteran U.S. diplomat, to “budge [Algerian] President Bouteflika and his government” to allow Morocco to consolidate their conquest.

This cable is very reminiscent of the longstanding effort by State Department officials during the Cold War to delegitimize national liberation struggles by claiming they were simply the creation of Cuba, the Soviet Union, or some other nation-state challenging U.S. hegemony. Indeed, in a throwback to Cold War rhetoric, Jackson insists that the Polisario Front, which has been recognized as the legitimate government of Western Sahara by over 80 governments, is “Cuba-like.” In the cable, Jackson calls for U.S. support for Moroccan calls for a census and audit of international programs in Polisario-led refugee camps, but not support for the international call for human rights monitors in the occupied territory. In addition, rather than recognizing the right of Sahrawi refugees to return under international law, he unrealistically suggests that the Sahrawi refugees all be resettled in Spain.

Contradicting findings by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other observers which provide evidence to the contrary, he insists that “respect for human rights in the territory has greatly improved” and “once common beatings and arbitrary imprisonment have also essentially ceased.” Despite an unprecedented level of popular resistance against the occupation, he insists “support for independence is waning.” He praises Morocco’s development efforts in the occupied territory, even claiming that Al Aioun, the occupied Western Sahara capital, is “without any Shantytowns,” which is news to those of us who have actually been there and seen them.

In a rare moment of candor, Jackson acknowledges that Morocco’s “hard-line stance may have been bolstered by what was perceived in the Palace as uncritical support from Washington.” However, he falsely claims that most governments in the UN Security Council support Morocco’s “autonomy” plan for Western Sahara, which not only promises a very circumscribed level of self-governance but prohibits the people of Western Sahara from voting on the option of independence as required under international law.

Not long after this cable was written, Jackson was promoted by President Obama to his first post as full ambassador, as the U.S.-backed dictatorship to the Republic of Cameroon. This serves as yet another example that a willingness to tow the official line rather than critically examining the evidence is the key to advancement in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus. His most recent book, co-authored with Jacob Mundy, is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010.)

WikiLeaks XIV: Mexican Government’s Drug Policy Benefits Drug Cartels

Edgar 'La Barbie' Valdez VillarrealWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fourteenth in the series.

Apologists for Mexico’s horrifically violent war against drugs ought to check out the latest cables released by WikiLeaks, which offer a sobering reality check. Just under three months ago, articles like this one from Newsweek’s Malcolm Beith took stock of the escalating violence in the country and suggested that “the carnage may actually be a sign that the Mexican government, rather than losing control, is winning.” This line of reasoning strikes me now, as it did then, as specious at best. Doubly so when we consider that Beith’s argument is based solely on one source—a former high-ranking government official within the Mexican establishment.

But special-access journalism at its worst—where politicians tell publications exactly what you would expect them to say—has seemingly come to kneel under the equalizing force of WikiLeaks and its trove of unvarnished expert assessments that were never intended to see the light of day. In the case of Mexico, a recently released cable dated just under a year ago offer common sense analysis that the spiraling violence in the country—far from a sign of progress—suggests a descent into failure.

The cable describes a Mexican government pursuing losing tactics in the name of an unfocused strategy that leaves everyone worse off, with the exception of the country’s increasingly powerful powerful drug cartels. While President Felipe Calderon is described as being a largely trustworthy ally who continues to enjoy healthy levels of public support, the embassy report argues that Mexico’s leaders is acting from a position of relevant weakness to the challenges facing him.

President Calderon has entered the last three years of his six-year term facing a complicated political and economic environment. His National Action Party (PAN) emerged seriously weakened from a dramatic set-back suffered in the July congressional elections and was unable to recoup any real momentum during the last legislative session. Calderon’s bold plan for ten ambitious areas for reform, announced in September, has yet to translate into politically viable initiatives. His personal popularity numbers have dropped, driven largely by massive economic contraction and a public sense that there is little strategy to create new and sustainable jobs.

But beyond the perennial problems facing any world leader, Calderon’s situation appears unusually troublesome.

Calderon has aggressively attacked Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations but has struggled with an unwieldy and uncoordinated interagency and spiraling rates of violence that have made him vulnerable to criticism that his anti-crime strategy has failed. Indeed, the GOM’s inability to halt the escalating numbers of narco-related homicides in places like Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere — the nationwide total topped 7,700 in 2009 — has become one of Calderon’s principal political liabilities as the general public has grown more concerned about citizen security.

Here the cable fails to fully articulate the full scale of the country’s drug related violence, fighting that has accounted for over 30,000 civilian deaths since Calderon took office. The source of the trouble, as might be expected, lies in the country’s security institutions, which

are often locked in a zero-sum competition in which one agency’s success is viewed as another’s failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of. Official corruption is widespread, leading to a compartmentalized siege mentality among “clean” law enforcement leaders and their lieutenants. Prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal; two percent of those detained are brought to trial. Only 2 percent of those arrested in Ciudad Juarez have even been charged with a crime.

The cable notes that reform efforts at bolstering more productive approaches to dealing with the country’s drug cartels—including reducing military units to secondary support functions in police-led operations—have shown some signs of success. Unfortunately, however, the gains will be necessarily limited.

They simply lack the necessary numbers of trained federal police to deploy them in such numbers in more than a few cities. There are changes in the way that the military can interact with vetted municipal police, as we have seen in Tijuana, that produce better results. But in the near term, there is no escaping that the military will play a role in public security.

Even if ideally coordinated efforts could be achieved, it still would likely not matter.

The [drug traffickers] are sophisticated players: they can wait out a military deployment; they have an almost unlimited human resource pool to draw from in the marginalized neighborhoods; and they can fan complaints about human rights violations to undermine any progress the military might make with hearts and minds.

Undermining all of the government’s efforts at rooting out the drug cartels and establishing order have been serious human rights concerns. The country’s Ministry of National Defense (SEDENA)

has taken a serious beating on human rights issues from international and domestic human rights organizations, who argue with considerable basis, in fact that the military is ill-equipped for a domestic policing role. While SEDENA has moved to address human rights criticisms, its efforts are mechanistic and wrapped in a message that often transmits defensiveness about bringing a hermetically sealed military culture into the twenty-first century.

Public pressure has forced Mexican authorities to reign human rights abuses in, but to little effect. The cable cites a recent report by Amnesty International noting

that complaints to the National Commission on Human Rights against the military increased from 367 in 2007 to over 2000 from 2008-June 2009.

Since the cable’s release, things have hardly improved. As an excellent Reuters article recently demonstrated, the government’s war on drugs is literally bleeding the country’s heartland dry.

Grisly assassinations and gang extortion are terrifying Mexicans in the western state of Michoacan, where President Felipe Calderon launched his war on drug cartels, sending in about 5,000 soldiers in December 2006 following a narrow election victory.

Not only do the drug traffickers continue business as usual in open defiance of the military, but

Federal authorities have had a hard time gaining local trust, with complaints of torture and rape by soldiers lodged at Michoacan’s state human rights commission.

On a recent afternoon in the central square of the bustling city of Uruapan near Morelia, couples, groups of old men and clusters of youths watched warily as a contingent of federal police pulled on their ski masks and climbed into armored vehicles to set off on a patrol of their new beat.

“You do not know who to watch out for, the bad guys or the federal police,” said a 60-year-old farmer as he sat on a bench with his wife, who added: “Calderon said he would make things better in Michoacan, but things have gotten worse.”

When security forces do effectively move against the mafias, the traffickers simply ratchet up their retaliatory measures.

Earlier this month, drug hitmen blocked roads with burning cars and set fire to a gas station after security forces arrested two local smugglers, effectively shutting down Morelia. Gunmen fired 1,700 rounds into an armored vehicle carrying the former state police chief in April. The official barely survived and later resigned. A top state policeman was also gunned down in October.

Still, President

Calderon insists there is no turning back, that violence shows gangs are becoming desperate and that he is winning. “We will persevere until we leave Mexico free of the cancer of organized crime,” he said in a speech on Sunday.

This might be persuasive rhetoric if the Mexican drug trade were only in its nascent stages of development. But it’s not. And as anyone who has experience battling late-stage, metastasizing cancers can tell you, poisonous treatments are often be more immediately deadly than the cause.

Ireland: The Great Famine 2.0

Irish financial crisisTwo images came to mind as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union began systematically dismantling what is left of the shattered Irish economy. One was a photo in the New York Review of Books of an abandoned, up-scale house in County Leitrim, a casualty of the 2008 housing bubble. The other, an 1886 conversation about the aftermath of the 1845-47 potato famine between Sir Wilfred Blunt and the Bishop of Confert at Anghrim, the site of Ireland’s last stand in the rising of 1688.

“They call it the last battle, but this is not true, for the battle has gone on ever since,” the Bishop told Blunt. “Look at those great grass fields, empty for miles and miles away. Every one of them contained once its little house, its potato ground, its patch of oats…and where are they now? Engulfed in Liverpool, London, New York…and all for making a few English landlords rich.”

Substitute “bankers” for “English landords” and one has to conclude that Karl Marx didn’t have it quite right: in Ireland history repeats itself the second time as tragedy, not farce.

Historical analogies are tricky, but the potato famine and the current economic crisis have parallels that are hard to ignore. In both cases the contagion was foreign born. The 1845 fungus—Phytoph thora infestans—came from Mexico via Boston and the Netherlands. The 21st century bubble came from Wall Street and Bonn (German banks are Ireland’s largest creditors). And in both cases the devastation was a result of conscious policy choices by the powerful.

A little history.

The 1845 fungus pretty much killed every potato in Europe, but only in Ireland was there mass starvation. Because only in Ireland had there been a conscious colonial policy to encourage population growth. Ireland in 1845 had about 10.8 million people, more than twice what it has today. Population density meant a desperate competition for land, which, in turn, kept rents high. Places like rural Connaught had a population of 386 persons per square mile in 1845, considerably denser than England’s. The vast bulk of that population—78 percent to be precise—was dependent solely on the potato for subsistence.

The other great advantage of a high population was taxes, which were increased 170 percent from 1800 to 1849. During the same period they fell 11 percent in England. “Over-taxation is not an accident,” remarked Marx, “It is a principle.” He had that one right.

When the blight struck, this entire edifice collapsed. No one really knows the final butcher’s bill, but between 1841 and 1851 the population plummeted from 10.8 million to 6.2 million. About a million of these emigrated, though many of those died enroute—the ship Avon lost 236 out of 552; the Virginius, 267 out of 476—or when they arrived. Of the 100,000 Irish that immigrated to Canada in 1847, 40,000 died within the first month. How many starved at home? Maybe three million? Maybe more.

The exodus today is smaller, but about 65,000 left last year, and the estimate for 2010 is 120,000. There won’t be mass starvation, but the IMF-imposed austerity package will slice deeply into social services, battering Ireland’s unemployed. Tens of thousands are being evicted from their homes while more than 300,000 houses stand empty, like the one in Leitrim. This time around there will no be cottages filled with corpses as there were 163 years ago, but in the months to come there will be plenty of homeless and hungry.

Ireland’s economy in 1845 may have been unsustainable for the many, but it was quite profitable for a few. There was even plenty of food produced during the famine, but it went to the landlords. In 1847 crops worth 45 million pounds sterling were exported, including hundreds of tons of wheat, barley, and oats, along with cattle, butter and cheese. While the Irish starved, those responsible for their condition drank, ate and made merry.

Jump ahead to 1990.

As a new and “disadvantaged ” member of the European Union, Ireland was subsidized to the tune of nearly 11 billion Euros. In a small country that’s a lot of money. With its highly educated, English-speaking population, proximity to Europe, modest wages, and the lowest corporate tax rate in Europe—12.5 percent—Ireland was the ideal place for multinationals like Pfizer and Microsoft to take up residence. The country’s debt was low—12 percent, one quarter of Germany’s—with good social services. Thus was the “Celtic Tiger” born.

Then came the blight.

Bankers and moguls, allied with Irish politicians, saw a chance to make a killing in real estate. From 1999 to 2007, bank loans for real estate and construction rose 1,730 percent, from 5 million Euros to 96.2 million Euros, more than half the GDP of the island. “It was not the public but the private sector that went haywire in Ireland,” saysFinancial Times columnist Martin Wolf.

House prices doubled and mortgage holders routinely paid out a third of their income to service loans. The politicians manipulated the tax structure to make it easier for developers to avoid taxes and fees, all the while subsidizing speculators with billions of Euros. “The lines between thievery and patriotism, between the private advantage and the national interest, became impossibly blurred,” says Fintan O’Toole in “Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption sank the Celtic Tiger.”

Ireland went from a small but dynamic economy to one dominated by an enormous bubble, its banks laden down with bad debts, its financial institutions vastly overextended.

When Wall Street melted down, sparking off a worldwide recession, the bubble popped, the edifice collapsed, and Ireland’s debt rocketed to 32 percent of GDP. And, like in 1845, it was the little who people took the hit. O’Toole estimates that Irish taxpayers shelled out $30 billion Euros to rescue the Anglo-Irish Bank, essentially the entire tax revenue for 2009. While the banks got a bailout, the Irish got savage austerity.

Joblessness is at 14.5 percent, 24 percent for young people. Personal income has declined more than 20 percent. Welfare benefits are due to shrink between 4 and 10 percent, and public sector wages from 5 to 15 percent. The Irish will be looking at a decade of lower wages, fewer services, regressive taxes, and record joblessness in an economy burdened with repaying an 85 billion Euro ($113 billion) IMF/European Union “bailout” at an onerous 5.83 percent interest rate. Of course “bailout” is a misnomer: The package is little more than a slight of hand that shifts private debt onto the shoulders of the public.

But the Irish are not famous for being quiet. Workers in Waterford seized their factory last year. In early November 25,000 students wearing t-shirts proclaiming “Education not Emigration” descended on the Dail, Ireland’s parliament, to oppose increases in student fees. And tens of thousands of trade unionists, led by pipe and drum bands, marched up historic O’Connell Street late last month carrying slogans reading, “It’s not our fault, we must default,” “Eire not for sale,” and “IMF out!” In a recent by-election in Donegal, the leftist Sinn Fein Party shellacked a government candidate. The government, says Sinn Fein President Jerry Adams, “Has no mandate to negotiate such terms and impose such a burden on the ordinary taxpayer.”

It will not be the last defeat for the Fianna Fail/Green Party governing coalition. The government’s “bailout” is specifically designed to fall on the needy. While 17.5 billion Euros will come out of the National Pension Reserve Fund, bondholders and banks will go untouched. Even the Financial Times was moved to condemn the “ongoing transfusion of wealth to those who recklessly financed the country’s real estate bubble.” Fianna Fail and the Greens will pay come the next election. But that may be too late if the government rams the “bailout” through, thus setting the plan in stone.

Like the 1845 blight, the financial contagion is spreading. Spain and Portugal are on the ropes, and Italy is in deep trouble. This time around the Irish will have plenty of company in their misery.

However, there is a way out that doesn’t involve inflicting enormous pain on millions of people who had nothing to do with causing the crisis:

1) Reject the pact or, if it is approved, repudiate it following a general election.

2) Dump the Euro and go back to a currency under Irish control. The Euro’s days are likely numbered in any case.

3) Suspend home evictions and put through a jobs bill.

4) Renegotiate the debt with the “Argentina option” in the wings: Argentina was caught in a debt crisis in 2001 and subjected to a barbaric IMF-imposed austerity plan. The Argentines told the IMF to lump it, declared bankruptcy, and successfully rebuilt their economy.

Of course the bankers and the IMF will scream like the banshees, but that would be music to Irish ears.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches from the Edge.

WikiLeaks XIII: Cables Reveal the Extent to Which U.S. and Russia Vied for Prized “Bout-y”

Viktor BoutWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the thirteenth in the series.

Leaked cables from the US embassy in Bangkok shed light on the extent to which the United States and Russia were willing to go to win their diplomatic tug-of-war for alleged arms trafficker Viktor Bout.

In one dispatch dated February 2009, Ambassador Eric John reveals forthrightly that since “Bout’s arrest in Bangkok almost a year ago [March 2008], moving towards a successful extradition to the United States has been at the top of our bilateral agenda here.” The matter was so sensitive, in fact, that “President Bush raised it with then-Prime Minister Samak during his August 2008 visit to Bangkok.”

John notes that while extradition proceedings had been progressing smoothly, if slowly, evidence had surfaced to suggest Russian tampering with the case.

There have been disturbing indications that Bout’s xxxxxxxxxx and Russian supporters have been using money and influence in an attempt to block extradition. The most egregious example was the false testimony of xxxxxxxxxx that Bout was in Thailand as part of government-to-government submarine deal.

Suspicions of corruption and perjury drove the ambassador to raise these concerns directly with Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Despite assurances from Bangkok that every effort would be made to ensure fair legal proceedings in the extradition process, a Thai court ruled against Washington’s request six months later. A determined John fired off another cable two days later, laying out “a multi-pronged effort to seek a successful reversal during the appeals process.” Underscoring the argument that securing Bout’s extradition was a matter of priority for American interests, John urged pulling out all the stops.

Beyond his embassy’s own efforts to voice displeasure at the ruling with top Thai authorities, John requested that

Washington strongly consider the following actions: — In addition to the Department calling in the Thai Ambassador, we recommend that Attorney General Holder also call him in. AG Holder could point out the extensive U.S. commitment of law enforcement resources to Thailand (DEA and other), as well as our judicial training efforts, and that a statement from the RTG as outlined above would be very helpful as the U.S. decides where best to commit its law enforcement resources around the world.

But John doesn’t stop there. He also suggests that President Barack Obama personally call the prime minister and have

a serious discussion of our concerns over the implications of the Bout verdict, as outlined above. We believe POTUS involvement on Bout would have had significant effect here.

The ambassador also floats the idea that it may be a good to explore

the possibility of whether governments whose citizens have borne the bloody results of Bout’s activities over the years, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo, would be willing to publicly express dismay/engage the Thai government on the verdict and whether any affected government would be willing to ask for his extradition.

At the end of the day, however, John notes that Thailand should not exclusively consume efforts at putting Bout behind bars. The affair, the ambassador notes, “is at heart a U.S.-Russian matter.” In the event that the so-called “Lord of War” were to walk, John recommends that the State Department

make clear to Moscow our concerns on Bout’s activities and seek assurances that they will cease. Also, we should consider asking the Russians to prosecute Bout… At the very least perhaps we could force the Russians to publicly refuse to do so.

Whatever action was eventually taken in the Bout affair, it worked. In early October, Thailand’s Criminal Court handed down a ruling that paved the way for his extradition to the United States. A month later, Bout was being held on American soil. As WikiLeaks documents continue dripping into the public record, we’ll hopefully be treated to more cables offering a blow-by-blow account of the lengths to which Washington went to secure sole authority over the Merchant of Death.

To Chalmers Johnson, American Militarism Was to Colonialism as Overseas Bases Are to Colonies

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

On November 20, Chalmers Johnson, scholar of East Asian development and critic of American empire, died at age seventy-nine.

While Johnson arguably finished his career as a member of what White House press secretary Robert Gibbs calls the “professional Left,” he did not begin it that way. Iwrote in a 2007 review of Johnson’s book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic:

Johnson’s writing is often described as “polemic,” but that doesn’t capture the heartfelt concern that underlies his distress about our country. Whereas many of us have grown numb to White House outrages, Johnson’s indignation at the administration—its torture memos, its contempt for the freedom of public information, its defacing of established treaties—is vivid. This might be due to his conservative background: a Navy lieutenant in the early ‘50s, a consultant for the CIA from 1967 to 1973, and a long-time defender of the Vietnam War, Johnson became horrified at American militarism and interventionism only later in life. He now writes like he is making up for lost time.

Interestingly, he retained some more conservative supporters. In an obit at the National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn writes: “In a sense, it may be a mistake to say that Chalmers moved to the ‘left.’ He personified many of the ‘old right’ themes as well.”

Whatever the case, Johnson made some fine contributions to debates in international politics and political economy. Of his early work, Steve Clemons comments:

[Johnson] invented and was the acknowledged godfather of the conceptualization of the “developmental state”. Chalmers Johnson led the way in understanding the dynamics of how states manipulated their policy conditions and environments to speed up economic growth. In the neoliberal hive at the University of Chicago, Chalmers Johnson was an apostate and heretic in the field of political economy. Johnson challenged conventional wisdom with he and his many star students—including E.B. Keehn, David Arase, Marie Anchordoguy, Mark Tilton and others—writing the significant treatises documenting the growing prevalence of state-led industrial and trade and finance policy abroad, particularly in Asia.

Today, the notion of “State Capitalism” has become practically commonplace in discussing the newest and most significant features of the global economy. Chalmers Johnson invented this field and planted the intellectual roots of understanding that other nation states were not trying to converge with and follow the so-called American model.

I haven’t personally investigated the debate over Japan that Clemons references, but I can say that there has been discussion of “state capitalism” in the socialist tradition that long predates Johnson. Nevertheless, the idea that the “Asian Tigers” did not successfully develop their economies as a result of neoliberal adherence to IMF dictates—but rather, in many instances, by blatantly defying these dictates—is an important concept that deserves frequent reiteration.

The other two ideas of Johnson’s that stood out for me come from his later work. They are the concepts of “Blowback” and “Baseworld.”

The first notion is quite well-known at this point. “Blowback” is apparently a CIA-originated term, but Johnson popularized it with a book of that name that became a bestseller in the wake of 9/11. The term refers to unintended consequences of a country’s foreign policy—particularly its covert actions. The United States government’s arming of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War, something that doesn’t look so wise in retrospect, stands as a prime example.

“Baseworld,” a less-discussed idea, is Johnson’s proposal that America’s imperial reach (and hubristic overstretch) can be measured by its far-flung web of military bases. As I wrote in 2007:

Johnson’s most distinctive contribution to the debate about U.S. empire is his documentation of America’s vast network of overseas military bases, a project he began in his 2004 book The Sorrows of Empire. “Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies,” he writes in Nemesis. “America’s version of the colony is the military base.” The United States officially maintains 737 bases worldwide, worth more than $127 billion and covering at least 687,347 acres in some 130 foreign countries. For local populations exposed to the pollution, bar fights, and brothels that surround such encampments, they are wounds that fester daily. At home, Johnson argues, Americans suffer from the bloated military budgets required to maintain this “baseworld.”

At the time, I criticized Johnson for only measuring U.S. influence in terms of military assets and paying insufficient attention to soft power. I would still contend that looking at military bases only provides a partial view of the American role in the world. Yet “baseworld” is one of those ideas that, once it’s on your radar, keeps popping up again and again. In recent years, I’ve found myself frequently citing Johnson when trying to convey the extent of everyday U.S. power projection throughout the world—an aggressive posturing that consistently goes unnoticed here at home.

Likewise, I disagreed with Johnson when he used language (as he often did in the last decade of his life) suggesting that the military industrial complex and George W. Bush’s executive power grabs had fundamentally undermined our democratic republic. When he argued, “the structure of government in Washington today bears [no] resemblance to that outlined in the Constitution of 1787,” Johnson subscribed to something like Naomi Wolf’s “End of America” thesis, which I think is bunk.

Nevertheless, I agree with Johnson’s admonishment that adventurist foreign policy comes at a steep cost for our country, and not only in financial terms. Remembering the late scholar, we do well to take to heart his warning that, unless we seriously reexamine our astronomical military spending and disastrous record of military interventionism, we risk “losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire.”

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.

Japan May Become Both More Independent and More Allied With the U.S.

There are signs of a growing debate between Japanese politicians over the future of its weapons export ban. Last month, newly appointed Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara intimated that revisions to the export ban would be necessary in order to bolster its military in the face of a challenging security environment. Some have pointed to the economic growth such a move would engender; particularly as increasing exports is seen as fundamental to Japan’s recovery. Furthermore, engaging in joint weapons projects could allow for serious savings by reducing Japan’s reliance on imported military equipment. However, others, including Prime Minister Kan, view the ban as a core principle of Japanese pacifist defense policy and are sure to oppose revision.

The outcome of this debate will shape the future evolution of Japanese defense policy. The attempt to revise the weapons export ban is part of a dual-hedge strategy of Japan’s defense policy and its alliance with the United States. Such a strategy aims to achieve two goals.

First, Japan would grow its own indigenous capabilities, enabling it to pursue more unilateral action, less encumbered by American influence. This will allow it a modicum of independence that many Japanese see as necessary to both avoid costly entanglement within the U.S. alliance and permit Japan to exercise a foreign policy commensurate with Japan’s status as a great power.

Second, although this strategy will allow Japan the option of exercising a greater amount of independence, it will also enable Japan to tighten the alliance with the United States. This will be achieved by greater engagement in joint weapons development as well as by acquiescing to Washington’s demands that Japan take a more equal share of alliance burdens. Furthermore, revision will allow Japan another avenue to further engage other regional allies such as South Korea, Australia, and Indonesia. Japanese proponents also point to the savings joint weapons development would bring, particularly by reducing Japan’s reliance on costly arms imports.

Finally, in light of recent regional security developments, primarily China’s increasingly assertive attitude and growing concern over North Korean instability, some Japanese politicians are advocating a more muscular approach to regional diplomacy. Although Japan already maintains robust military capabilities, some fear falling behind China in the strategic balance.

The United States has recently increased its demands that Japan take on a greater share of alliance burdens to allow for a drawdown of U.S. forces in the region. This reflects a growing realization that in light of current circumstances, primarily budgetary constraints coupled with domestic Japanese hostility toward the extensive U.S. presence, that the existing posture is unsustainable.

This realization leaves Japan between a rock and a hard place. The regional environment facing Japan remains uncertain, with China flexing its muscles and North Korea a wild card. U.S. force reduction creates an operational gap, which must either be filled by the Japanese or tolerated. Given the current climate, it seems unlikely that the Japanese will allow such a gap to exist and therefore, will improve indigenous capabilities.

However, there is concern that revision of the export ban would further stoke fears in China. When Beijing surveys the map, it sees an alarming trend of militarizing neighbors, aligned with the United States, encircling China. A classic security dilemma could result in a regional arms race as China, Japan, as well as North and South Korea attempt to balance against what each perceives is a threatening regional environment.

It will be interesting to see how this debate develops. The shifting security environment as well as internal pressures may lead the Japanese government to rethink its position on the export ban and compromise by reverting back to the original 1967 structure. However, the weapons export ban has been a core element of Japanese defense policy for the past four decades, and it will be difficult, though not impossible, for revisionists to convince many of their colleagues, as well as the Japanese public, that change is warranted.

Greg Chaffin is an Intern/Research Assistant with Foreign Policy in Focus.

Insert Your Own Julian Assange Slur Here: __________

Julian Assange has been slandered and maligned more than anyone in recent years on the international scene save Iran’s President Ahamadinejad. In North America, for example, Bill O’Reilly called him a traitor and Representative Peter King (R-NY), who would seeks the designation of WikiLeaks as a foreign terrorist organization, called him a “clear and present danger.” Sarah Palin claimed he has “blood on his hands” and should be pursued “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaida and Taliban leaders?”

But here’s my favorite, reported by Raphael Satter and Malin Rising for the AP:

“I think Assange should be assassinated, actually,” Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told the CBC. “I think Obama should put out a contract or maybe use a drone or something.”

You understand what Flanagan, who later apologized, is saying here right? In effect, a Canadian is suggesting that the United States attack a man on the territory of Great Britain (where Assange has been attempting to lay low). Obviously he didn’t think it through. Not to mention the V-1/buzz bombs association that a drone over London might invoke.

Satter and Rising also report:

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. Assange is “trying to undermine the international system that enables us to cooperate and collaborate with other governments. . . . I think he’s an anarchist.”

Anarchist? Why not “anti-Christ” while you’re at it?

WikiLeaks XII: If It Had Its Druthers, Would North Korea Take the U.S. Over China?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twelfth in the series.

A curious document dropped in the WikiLeaks dump this week casts a sliver of light on the world’s most mysterious regime. The cable, issued from the US embassy in Ulaanbaatar, discussed a meeting that took place just over a year ago between representatives of Mongolia, including the president, and North Korean vice foreign affairs minister Kim Yong II.

According to the cable, the meetings represented a surprising change of tone and tactics on the part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North Korean delegation did not robotically read from a prepared script, did not waste time criticizing the United States, but repeatedly voiced displeasure with Russia and China.

Also noteworthy was the DPRK delegation’s insistence that they were optimistic about possibilities for rapprochement with the United States, given the changed nature of politics in the Oval Office. Discussing former president Bill Clinton’s undercover rescue mission to the northern peninsula last year, the DPRK delegation noted that

The groundwork for such a visit was already in place because of the progress the United States and the DPRK made during the Clinton presidency. Kim said forward motion stopped during the Bush Administration but was now able to proceed because of President Clinton’s recent involvement in a personal capacity, because President Obama is of the same party, and because former First Lady Clinton is now the Secretary of State. The North Koreans were expecting a dialogue with the United States to start soon as an extension of President Clinton’s visit.

But the vice foreign minister also hammered home the fact that any diplomatic advances would most certainly not take place in the now defunct six party talks.

Kim took a “very hard line” on the Six Party Talks according to xxxxx stating that the DPRK will never return to the talks, that the talks were dead, but that the door has not closed on an opportunity for negotiations. During discussion of the Six Party Talks, Kim criticized Russia and China for their support of recent UN resolutions aimed at the DPRK. Kim said Japan and the ROK were natural allies of the United States during the talks, and that Russia and China ended up supporting the other three, so that the DPRK felt it was five against one. Kim stated the real intention of the Six Party Talks was to destroy the DPRK regime, and that at present the DPRK wants to talk only to the United States.

Given recent flare-ups along the Korean peninsula, any attempts at squeezing meaning from this cable may be nothing more than academic at this point. Still, it’s hard not to feel as if important information might be gleaned, and not necessarily all of it about North Korea.

What’s most immediately striking is the picture painted by the Mongolians of a DPRK delegation that went out of its way to signal openness to a relationship with the United States. True, this portrait may have been touched up here and there through the filter of Mongolian interests (more on that in a moment). But if we reject the idea that the whole thing is nothing more than fully fabricated nonsense, then we have to assume that there is a kernel of truth in the narrative—perhaps without the warts and all. We also have to assume that the DPRK would have been fully aware that the Mongolians intended to pass along the contents of the meetings to their American allies. Can we then play with the idea that the North Koreans were testing the waters to see about possible negotiations with the United States?

Critics will surely reject this notion, arguing that the cable relates just another attempt by the wily DPRK to extract further concessions from the consistently gullible Americans with no intention whatsoever of participating in good faith negotiations to end the country’s sixty year standoff with the West. It’s a valid point.

But then why not extend the olive branch in public, yet one more time? Were elements in the isolated DPRK brain trust, perhaps sensing an imminent changing of the guard at the top of their government, feeling out possibilities for a new, more productive relationship with Washington? Perhaps too they have been sensing that China’s patience with Kim Jong Il is rapidly winding down, and that the time has come to establish relations with new partners to hedge against unpredictable future relations with Beijing.

And then there’s Mongolia. The cable clearly serves the best interests of Ulaanbaatar, which not-so-subtly positions itself as a trusted potential arbiter between Washington and Pyongyang. The cable ends with this:

xxxxx further noted that a xxxxx in Ulaanbaatar xxxxx on the way to the airport on August 11 that he had suggested to VFM Kim that it would be good to host U.S.-DPRK talks in Mongolia, but that Kim offered no reaction. xxxxx that the timing was right to establish a regional security mechanism whose organization the Mongols should spearhead.

Of course they should!

And so what? If Mongolia wants to situate itself as the hub of a regional security mechanism, whatever that means, serving the interests of peace in the area while simultaneously offering an anchor of US influence smack-dab in the middle of the Eurasian heartland, then all the more reason for Washington to endorse the move.

The only missing piece in all this is the American reaction, if any, to the news conveyed in the leaked cable. Given other cables issuing alarms about underwater nuclear reactors and Kim Jong Il’s recreational drug abuse, the State Department could very well have had its mind on other things.

WikiLeaks Cables Reveal Use of Environmentalism by US and UK as Pretext to Keep Natives From Returning to Diego Garcia

A confidential cable released by Wikileaks demonstrates that despite U.S. and U.K. claims, little has changed over the four decades since the two governments conspired to exile the people of the Chagos Archipelago and build a major U.S. military base on the people’s largest island, Diego Garcia.

The U.S. Embassy in London’s May 2009 cable summarizing Anglo-American talks reveals policymakers using a racial slur to refer to the Chagos islanders and planning to create a an allegedly environmentally-friendly “Marine Protection Area” in Chagos as a way to prevent the exiled islanders from ever returning to their homeland.

The history of the 2009 meeting dates to the 1960s when U.S. and British officials secretly orchestrated the expulsion of the people known as Chagossians to make way for a base on Diego Garcia. Following years of secret negotiations with Britain, U.S. officials secured an agreement in 1966 to make $14 million in hidden payments in exchange for the base and British action to remove the Chagossians. Between 1968 and 1973, British agents used trickery, starvation, and ultimately deportations to dump the Chagossians on the western Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles. In the process, British agents and U.S. sailors on Diego Garcia herded up the Chagossians’ pet dogs and gassed and burned them in front of their traumatized owners awaiting deportation. Upon arrival, the people received no resettlement assistance and found themselves homeless, jobless, and soon living in what the Washington Post called “abject poverty.”

During planning for the removals, as previously released documents have shown, British and U.S. officials designed a policy to “maintain the fiction” that the Chagossians were not native to the islands when in fact their African and Indian ancestors had lived there since the late 18th century. Officials agreed in secret memos to represent the Chagossians to Congress, Parliament, the United Nations, and the world, “more or less fraudulently,” as “a floating population” of “transient contract workers” with no connection to the islands. One British official reflected the racism underlying the entire history when, in one dispatch, he described the islanders as “some few Tarzans or Men Fridays.”

In recent years, British officials, in particular, have repeatedly distanced themselves from the actions of their predecessors. “We do not seek to justify those actions,” wrote former Foreign Secretary David Miliband in 2008, “and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation.”

But now, a Wikileaks cable shows how little has changed: During 2009 discussions about a British proposal to create a Marine Protection Area (MPA) in the islands, Foreign and Commonwealth Office official Colin Roberts is quoted as saying the MPA would allow “no human footprints” or—repeating the Robinson Crusoe-derived name that has caused so much pain for Chagossians—“Man Fridays.”

Tellingly, Roberts admitted, “We do not regret the removal of the population.”

The cable provides additional revelations in showing that the MPA was explicitly designed to prevent Chagossians from returning to their islands as Chagossians have demanded since the expulsion. According to the cable, “a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official” said the “former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.”

While Colin Roberts acknowledged “there are proposals (for a marine park) that could provide the Chagossians warden jobs,” creating an MPA with the help of “a public relations campaign” funded by the influential Pew Charitable Trust “would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents.”

U.S. officials seemed to agree immediately, commenting, “Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling.”

Not surprisingly, U.S. officials’ main concern revolved around the MPA’s impact on military operations. In response, British officials repeatedly assured the Embassy that there would be “‘no constraints on military operations’ as a result of the establishment of a marine park.” The MPA, they said, would “not impact the base on Diego Garcia in any way.”

U.S. officials’ only other worry was the possibility that someone, some day, might find something a wee bit incongruous about having a massive military base (which has inflicted serious environmental damage on Diego Garcia in the form of jet fuel leaks, the blasting of coral reefs, and other daily harm) in the middle of a marine protection zone. “We are concerned,” the Embassy wrote, “that, long-term, both the British public and policy makers would come to see the existence of a marine reserve as inherently inconsistent with the military use of Diego Garcia.”

Given that the British Government ultimately established the MPA this year, with U.S. approval, over the protests of Chagossians and other environmentalists, the Pew-funded public relations campaign appears to have worked wonders. Gone was the racism and cynical manipulation now revealed by Wikileaks, and in its place, only “a historic victory for global ocean conservation.”

WikiLeaks XI: Release of Sri Lankan Cables Timed to Shine Light on Government and Tamil Tigers Savagery

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the eleventh in the series.

The beginning of 2009 brought an end to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelaam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Government forces crushed the rebel movement in a final push that imperiled the lives of nearly 200,000 civilians, and ultimately left thousands dead. In January, the Sri Lankan military seized the LTTE stronghold of Killonichi, trapping untold numbers of innocent civilians between the Sri Lankan military and the rebel Tiger fighters facing their last stand. Neither side, according to humanitarian groups, exercised much regard for the safety of locals in their fighting, a situation that grew so alarming that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accused both sides of committing war crimes. By May of that year, the Sri Lankan government had claimed victory, but at no small cost. Human rights groups and Tamil activists abroad, who had raised the alarm during the worst of the fighting, began demanding a public investigation into claims that the Sri Lankan military had committed war crimes en route to defeating the LTTE. 

And yet, nothing much happened. 

A new cable released by WikiLeaks suggests a very good reason why there’s been so little movement on the investigation. Writing in January of this year, US Ambassador Patricia Butenis writes that

There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power.

But in Sri Lanka

this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka.

Not only that, it’s not clear that surviving Tamils are eager to reopen a door to the past. In the first place, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact that the Tigers were themselves guilty of some heinous crimes against humanity in the final months of battle. But Butenis also points out some other, less obvious reasons for Tamil reticence on the matter.

While Tamils have told us they would like to see some form of accountability, they have been pragmatic in what they can expect and have focused instead on securing greater rights and freedoms, resolving the IDP question, and improving economic prospects in the war-ravaged and former LTTE-occupied areas.

In addition,

while they wanted to keep the issue alive for possible future action, Tamil leaders with whom we spoke in Colombo, Jaffna, and elsewhere said now was not time and that pushing hard on the issue would make them “vulnerable.”

The question that remains, then, is when the time will ever be ripe for investigation. On this, Butenis is clear.

Accountability is clearly an issue of importance for the ultimate political and moral health of Sri Lankan society… A few have suggested to us that while they cannot address the issue, they would like to see the international community push it. Such an approach, however, would seem to play into the super-heated campaign rhetoric of Rajapaksa and his allies that there is an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka and its “war heroes.”

This may be, but any investigation into the first months of fighting in 2009 would also shine light on American—indeed, international—inaction despite full awareness of events on the ground. It bears reminding that the United States did little more than express “disappointment†during the crisis, and only began taking more serious action when the fighting had more or less concluded. At the same time, the issue was never raised at the UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shamefully never demanded that it be placed on the council’s agenda. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, the timing of this cable suggests some clever marketing strategy. The Sri Lankan president arrived in England on Monday and had been scheduled to speak at a high-profile Oxford gathering today. The appearance has been cancelled on the grounds that security concerns threaten Rajapaksa’s safety. 


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